Sunday, April 13, 2014
Food and Survival
Weather: Cold mornings followed by hot, windy afternoons; last rain 4/6/14.
What’s blooming in the area: Cherries, plum, flowering quince, other pink and white flowered trees, daffodils; buds on apples.
Beyond the walls and fences: Siberian elms, alfilerillo, fern leaf globemallow, western stickseed, purple and tansy mustards, dandelions.
In my yard: Sand cherry, moss phlox; buds of choke cherries, spirea and lilacs; peonies emerged.
Animal sightings: Small birds, ants; still haven’t heard any bees.
Whenever we have weather that threatens the fruit crops, I think of a letter a college student in my home town wrote in 1853. She had just arrived, and was telling her parents how she was faring in the dormitory where they were responsible for their own meals. In addition to bread and butter, she said:
"I live on ‘taters’ and baked apples, yes, I have cooked just one slice of pork since you left. I have pared my peaches, took the best of them, and put half as much sugar on them, and stirred them down. I have got my three pint basins full left, they are first rate."
Without dried fruit there was famine in the years before refrigeration. However, there was a railroad in that part of Michigan by then. If one had cash, one could buy food. Poorer folks still faced lean times.
Several hundred years before, hunger was more common. Transatlantic voyages were especially difficult. In the 1650's, Robinson Crusoe’s ship floundered a few weeks after leaving Brazil. The first thing he did was rescue the provisions, which he lists as:
"bread, rice, three Dutch cheeses, five pieces of dried goat’s flesh"
They already had eaten the fowl. The rats already had destroyed the stores of barley and wheat.
In the early twentieth century, Gerald Brenan remembered, when he climbed to the fort above the port city of Almeria in southeastern Spain, he "scrambled up past the hovels of the poor and the sprawling prickly-pear plants."
He didn’t find the presence of the New World cactus something extraordinary. I assume they came as ship’s provisions. The fruits or tunas are edible, and so too are the pads. They are sold in my local grocery, along with tomatillos.
My guess is the cactus pieces that weren’t eaten, were tossed overboard as the crew approached Cádiz, or were thrown away once they had landed. It’s possible, the surplus was sold to the poor. One way or another, they arrived farther east and took root.
Being seen as food, doesn’t necessarily mark a plant for extinction. Famine times do, but otherwise, people tend to protect their food supply. There might not be any apples or wheat or barley if man hadn’t nurtured them. The ancestral plants may have passed the way of so many species that haven’t survive climatic changes.
Even pilfering animals, like birds who steal cherries, protect their food supply. They drop seeds near ditches where water carries them downstream. Like the tunas, they germinate.
Brenan, Gerald. South from Granada (1957) p 216.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe (1719), chapter 5.
Fennimore, Keith J. The Albion College Sesquicentennial History: 1835-1985 (1985) p 99, letter from Mary Ann Carlton, sister of the poet Will Carlton.
Photographs: Trees in my yard are young cherries (first picture). I assume the others taken in the area also are cherries, many planted by birds or the wind. The apricot flowers were destroyed by the cold. The trees are only now putting out new leaves.
Apple flowers are just emerging within their protective clusters of leaves.